UVM Is: Martha Caswell Advocates for Agroecology

UVM Is: Martha Caswell Advocates for Agroecology

Two months ago today, our friend and colleague Martha Caswell was featured in UVM Is for her work in agroecology. Published below is that article by Erica Housekeeper. 

Countries around the world, from Senegal to Brazil and the Netherlands, are embracing agroecology to achieve a more sustainable food system and adapt to climate change. But one place where agroecology has yet to go mainstream is the United States.

Martha Caswell, research and outreach coordinator for the UVM Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC)*. understands that there are challenges that accompany the growth in agroecology. However, she also sees its promise as people around the world are fundamentally rethinking and redesigning food systems, based on agroecological principles.

Agroecology aims to increase the ecological benefits of farming, and bring forward the experience and knowledge of farmers and other food system actors to study and find tangible solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing our food systems. Conserving crop diversity, improving soil health, achieving food sovereignty, and decreasing the distance between producer and consumer are just a few of the principles of agroecology.

“Because of the way agriculture in the United States has been consolidated, a lot of people don’t know where their food is coming from,” she says. “What will it take for that pendulum to swing back?”

UVM’s Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology

Caswell and the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) are offering a 15-credit Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology (CGSA) designed to examine potential pathways toward the sustainable transformation of the current agrifood system by integrating economic, social and ecological perspectives. The first course provides an introduction to agroecology, including an online portion dedicated to theory and framing the issues, and then a week of experiential learning at UVM, focusing on visits to highlight agroecology in action on Vermont farms.

Also highlighting the principles of Participatory Action Research (PAR), the low-residency certificate program guides students to identify critical questions and practice new methods for integrating data from farmers, academics, activists, and policymakers. This approach is used to understand agrifood system issues, as well as search for alternatives with real promise to help resolve issues on the ground.

“One way to start thinking about agroecology is to consider how nature would approach agriculture,” she says. “You’re still looking for high-quality production and caring about yield, but you’re also thinking about maintaining synergy with the natural world.”

A Social Scientist, a Transdisciplinary Approach

Caswell majored in American Culture at the University of Michigan and earned her Master’s in Public Policy with a focus on poverty and inequality at the University of Chicago. She was hired by UVM in 2012, to work as a research specialist for the Department of Plant and Soil Science and took a permanent position with the ALC the following year.

The mission of the ALC, which is part of the Department of Plant and Soil Science, is to co-create evidence and knowledge with farmers, activists and policymakers and to cultivate socially just and ecologically sound food systems. The ALC “community of practice” includes Professor Ernesto Mendez and Lecturer Vic Izzo and both graduate and undergraduate students, in addition to external project partners.

“This isn’t a career path I thought I would be on when I was in graduate school. I’m a social scientist in the middle of the Plant and Soil Science department, but agroecology needs to be transdisciplinary,” she says. “We’re trying to figure out how to look at the ways the various components of agrifood systems interact. Ernesto was trained as an agronomist and is now an agroecologist, I’m a social scientist, and Vic is an entomologist. The good news is that through our community of practice we’ve also attracted students who want to think about things from multiple angles.”

One of the ALC’s current research projects is examining what urban and peri-urban agroecology looks like in Vermont. The partner organizations for this research project are the Intervale CenterNew Farms for New AmericansVermont Community Garden Network, and UVM’s Catamount Farm.

“Agroecology is based on principles, and after working with these Vermont organizations, they have seen that agroecology is something they are already practicing. Now we are looking at where they can deepen what they’re already doing and identifying the best ways to move in that direction,” she says. “At the international level, we see more of a tipping point. But the food system within Vermont also lends itself really well to the idea of agroecology.”

Part of the challenge with agroecology in much of the United States is that industrial farming is a dominant force, she says.

“The agrifood system in the U.S. is definitely structured to favor the industrial model and most policies don’t favor small farms,” she says. “That leaves smallholder farmers in the U.S. trying to figure out where they fit in.”

Progress in Agroecology

A bright spot is that agroecology is starting to open space for women to be recognized for their contributions, she says.

While men have traditionally been motivated by higher yields and income potential, women have focused on protecting against risk, maintaining biodiversity and providing nutritious food for their families.

“The people who have been credited with the first wave of agroecology are all men,” Caswell says. “But recently women have stepped up to say there is no agroecology without us and women are finally being recognized for the work they have always done.”

This happens at the farm and at the University. A recent organization by the name of Alianza de Mujeres en la Agroecología-Alliance of Women in Agroecology (AMA-AWA) is working to support this internationally. Helda Morales, Professor at ECOSUR in Mexico and one of the founders of AMA-AWA, recently visited UVM and invited Caswell to join.

That shift to highlight women’s accomplishments in agroecology, at the farm and the academy, is something Caswell hopes students will find inspiring. If she could give students one piece of advice on how to make progress, it would be that collaboration and listening are necessary for success.

“Be confident in what you know and also aware of what you don’t know. Be ready to listen and try to work on things together,” Caswell says. “When we’re convinced there is only one way, then we are much more likely to end up at a dead end. But when we open up to multiple options, we have a better chance of getting to where we need to be.”

 The “UVM Is” series celebrates University faculty, educators, and the campus community.

*link updated from original article

Introduction to Agroecology 2019 Has Begun

Introduction to Agroecology Has Begun

word cloud based on students' introductions
Students introduced themselves and what they were excited about for the upcoming weeks. Some of the most common phrases were ‘agroecology’, ‘food’, and ‘love’.
Spring has finally sprung in Vermont and the first course of the Certificate of Graduate Study in Agroecology is underway! Thirteen students started the course, PSS 311: Introduction to Agroecology, last Monday , bringing with them a multiplicity of perspectives from around the world. This session’s participants  hail from Ecuador and El Salvador; New York, New Jersey, Boston, and Rhode Island; Ohio, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and the UK. And, of course, Vermont. For the first three weeks of the class, students will study in their home foodsheds, participating online and establishing a strong basis of knowledge in agroecology as science, movement, and practice. In June, they will gather in Vermont for a week spent sharing ideas in person and experiencing agroecology in action. They will visit, work and share with 4 of the ALC’s partner farms: Catamount Educational Farm, Diggers Mirth, Stony Pond FarmBread and Butter Farm, and The Farm Between. Some participants are in the middle of their graduate studies, while others bring years of experience on farms or working internationally for non-governmental organizations. We are incredibly humbled to get to share this summer with such a diverse group of agroecologists – stay tuned for more updates from the field! 
The ALC Team 

ALC’s Coffee farmer Cooperative Partners share experiences of diversification project at Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Expo and UVM


ALC’s Coffee farmer Cooperative Partners share experiences of diversification project at Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Expo and UVM

The ALC and CESMACH teams arrive in Boston and the fun begins!

Leticia Velasco and Rigoberto Hernández Jonapá, collaborators from the CESMACH coffee cooperative (based in Chiapas, MX), visited the Northeast in mid-April. ALC members Martha Caswell, Janica Anderzén and Ernesto Méndez met up with Lety and Rigo in Boston, where the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) held its annual Expo, from April 11-14. The team presented findings from Smallholder Coffee Diversification Project at a panel and participated in an academic poster session.


The Expo brings together a diversity of actors in the specialty coffee sector to share the latest trends in the coffee industry. However, we and our colleagues noticed that key contributors to the coffee value chain were largely missing – the smallholder producers. While vendors were showcasing expensive machinery and baristas were competing to make the best latte, the producers were visible mainly in pictures on banners and in brochures. Lety noted that although it was interesting to see the Expo, she was a little disappointed with what she saw. “Buyers are not looking for friends, they are only interested in our product”, she commented after the Expo.


Rigo, Martha, and Janica presenting their work with CESMACH at the SCA Expo.

Despite these feelings of disillusionment, we were heartened by the words of Todd Caspersen, Director of Purchasing and Production at Equal Exchange, who joined us as a panelist. Todd shared that he sees this kind of research project, with multiple partners, as an interesting way for Equal Exchange to engage outside of the “transactional relationship” with farmer groups. He sees this as very important and discussed the importance of “building our muscles” as we look for solutions to challenges, such as climate change, which threaten the future viability of coffee production. The team also enjoyed moments of solidarity with other smallholder producers, as we learned about the current campaign being carried out by members of the Símbolo de Pequeños Productores (SPP – the small producer symbol). The focus of this campaign is setting a price for coffee that covers costs of production and provides some profit to producers. The difference between the SPP and other labels (i.e. organic or Fair Trade) is that the prices and the standards are set by representatives of smallholder cooperatives themselves, rather than by people and organizations based in consuming countries in the global north.  


academic panel sits at a table while a man speaks
From right to left: Nate Van Dusen (Brio Coffeeworks), Marcela Pino (Food 4 Farmers), Lety (CESMACH), Janica (ALC), Rigo (CESMACH), and Ernesto (ALC)

After the Expo, the team headed to Burlington. ALC hosted a panel at UVM with participation from Ernesto (ALC), Rigo and Lety (CESMACH), Marcela Pino (Food 4 Farmers) and Nate Van Dusen (Brio Coffeeworks), where panelists discussed their perspectives on livelihood diversification for smallholder coffee farmers. The guests also shared their experiences at an ALC lab session, and in an event hosted by the Brio Coffeeworks at their facilities. In addition, Janica (ALC PhD candidate) shared her research in the diversification project at the UVM student research conference.


Woman speaks to audience in coffee roastery
ALC members visited Brio Coffeeworks in Burlington’s south end to learn about the small-roaster side of the coffee industry and taste some new CESMACH coffee.

All of these events presented great opportunities to learn about the producers’ experiences and perspectives, and to discuss how researchers and NGOs can support farmers’ organizations in implementing diversification strategies that can help farmers face challenges such as low prices, climate change, and food insecurity.  

– Janica Anderzen, ALC PhD Candidate at University of Vermont

Ernesto Mendez Joins International Researchers, Farmers, and Activists in Brazil

Ernesto Mendez Joins International Researchers, Farmers, and Activists in Brazil

ALC Director and PSS Chair, Ernesto Mendez, traveled to Florianópolis, the capital city of Santa Catarina, Brazil, to attend a leadership team meeting of the Collaborative Crop Research Program (CCRP), of the McKnight Foundation. The week-long meeting brings together staff and researchers from the 3 regions of the CCRP in the South American Andes, West Africa and East and South Africa. As part of the visit the CCRP team met with CEPAGRO, an agroecology focused organization, based at the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC). CEPAGRO’s work aligns well with the ALC’s Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach. The gathering at the UFSC, brought together 30 professionals and students from the US, Brazil, Canada, El Salvador, Ecuador, Kenya, Germany, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Peru, and England.


The history of agroecology in Brazil is a rich one, based not only in land stewardship and diversification of farmer livelihoods, but also in the struggle to maintain access to land. “In order for Agroecology to happen, the democratization of access to land for the people of the countryside and of the city is necessary,” said Eduardo Rocha of CEPAGRO.


Throughout the afternoon, leaders and representatives from regional and local communities, indigenous communities, and urban farmers shared their triumphs and struggles employing agroecology in the face of inequitable access to land and its associated discrimination. Those present included Shirlen Vidal de Oliveira and Helena Jucélia Vidal de Oliveira, representatives of the Quilombo Vidal Martins Community, in Rio Vermelho, Florianópolis; Fábio Ferraz and Bárbara Ventura, of the Amarildo de Souza Commune Settlement, and Cacique Artur Benites and Alexandro and Fábio, of the Guarani community of Aldeia Tekoá vy ‘a, in Major Gercino. Also present were urban farmers Raquel Solange de Souza and Alaércio Vicente Pereira Jr, CEPAGRO research partners Dana James and Evan Bowness of University of British Columbia, and Professor Antonio Munarim, of the Vianei Center for Popular Education.


What stood out to most participants that afternoon was the opportunity for knowledge sharing and collaboration amongst stakeholders of different backgrounds. Urban farmer Raquel Solange reflected on how impactful it was, “to communicate with the people who came from outside and also to know the natives and quilombos, because I have never visited a village or a quilombo. As a social worker I’ve given several lectures, but that theme I owned. And to be there to talk about Agroecology, it was just my personal experience, it was more to put my heart out.”


CCRP members also enjoyed a presentation on direct marketing for family farmers from the Family Agriculture Marketing Laboratory (LACAF). As agroecology advisor of the CCRP, which aims to support access to local, sustainable and nutritious food through collaborative research and knowledge sharing among small farmers, research institutions and development organizations, Ernesto reflected, “Brazil is strong in Agroecology and it is very important to listen to you, the producers and indigenous people. It is very important to learn from the experience in Brazil.”

This blog is based on an article, in Portuguese, by Clara Comandolli de Souza, Journalist at CEPAGRO. The original piece can be accessed here

From Apples to Popcorn, Climate Change Is Altering the Foods America Grows – NYT 4/29

ALC Community member and PhD candidate Alissa White spoke with New York Times reporter Kim Severson and lent some insight for her story about how climate change is impacting our diets. UVM Alum Lily Calderwood is also featured in the article.

“…Couple that with mild winters that don’t kill off pests, and unusual weather patterns that don’t bring rain when they should — or bring so much that farmers can’t get into the fields to work or have to battle fungus — and organic berries aren’t such a good bet anymore. “People have really given up on raspberries on a lot of farms,” said Alissa White, a researcher at the University of Vermont who tracks the impact of climate change on Northeastern farms. “Farmers are the kings of risk management. Once every 10 or 20 years we could lose a crop. But if once every three or four, that’s a lot.””

Keep following us here, and on instagram and facebook for further updates on agroecology as a science, movement, and practice.

Image Credit: MSJonesNYC

Ernesto Mendez, ALC Director, reflects on Synergies between Agriculture and Environmental Studies through Agroecology

Ernesto Mendez, ALC Director, reflects on ‘Synergies between Agriculture and Environmental Studies through Agroecology’

I came to the United States when I was 18, seeking to get away from the violence of the civil war in my native El Salvador, and thanks to the economic privilege of my family. After several years of career exploration, and also deeper learning and reflection about the social and environmental realities of my country, I chose agriculture.  Both my father and grandfather had farmed commercially, among other pursuits, in El Salvador, and I was always drawn to the farms. Along with this interest, I developed a concern for the multiplicity of challenges that smallholder farmers in Latin America, and around the world, face to this day. These range from social and ethnic discrimination, to lack of basic services and/or agricultural technical assistance. A career in international agricultural development, a field that focuses on working with farmers in developing countries, seemed like a great option for me. 

At first, my focus was on the science of agricultural production as a means to improve the well-being of farming families. However, as I expanded my studies, I realized that production was only one part of the issue, and that strengthening the livelihoods of farming households requires a broader understanding of the social, political and environmental challenges that they face. While pursuing degrees in Crop Science and Tropical Agroforestry, I found the field of 
agroecology, which, at the time, was defined as the ‘application of ecological concepts and principles to sustainable agriculture’. This notion made a lot of sense to me, and as the field has evolved over the years, it has remained my passion and my inspiration.  The first concrete confluence between agroecology and environmental studies came when I started a PhD at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I joined an interdisciplinary environmental studies program, with a concentration in agroecology. It was here that I first engaged with true interdisciplinary scholarship and challenged myself to deepen my learning in the social sciences. As a teaching assistant, I was working with students majoring in environmental studies with a curriculum very similar to the one we have at UVM. The position that I took at UVM in 2006, which integrated agriculture and environmental studies, was a perfect fit!

In my view, agroecology brings together the strengths of environmental studies to an agricultural context. Both fields share an emphasis on inter/transdisciplinarity, valuing and respecting the knowledge of farmers and indigenous people, and an awareness of social justice and the political economies that affect people and landscapes. In the last decade, researchers, social movements and farmers have embraced agroecology as an approach that can catalyze a transformation towards more sustainable and just food systems. Two key lessons I have learned from over 25 years working in agroecology are: 1) we need to be collaborative and 2) we need to be humble. Both of these qualities are necessary to stay open to an increasing level of complexity, and to find solutions in an inclusive way. I believe there are opportunities to better integrate the fields of agroecology and environmental studies to support the livelihoods of both farmers and eaters, while conserving the ecosystem services of agricultural landscapes. 

ENVS students interested in agroecology have a variety of options to engage with it at UVM. The 
Plant and Soil Science Department (PSS), which I now chair, is in the process of strengthening its agroecology curriculum, reinforcing hands-on and high impact learning practices, as well as changing the major and minor names to Agroecology. We have also integrated the Farmer Training Program (FTP) into PSS, and are seeking for this initiative to have more interactions with the UVM Community. My research group, the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC), carries out agroecological investigations in Vermont and Latin America, with a long trajectory of work supporting environmental conservation and farmer livelihoods in smallholder coffee cooperatives. We have recently launched a 2-semester ALC Undergraduate Research Fellows Program (see a UVM Communications story about the program here), with a focus on agroecology and Participatory Action Research (PAR). All of these are collaborative initiatives, which have brought together a diversity of faculty, staff and students from PSS, ENVS, UVM Extension and others outside of UVM. 

Agroecology can help study and address a range of issues in agriculture, including ecological analysis of practices, options to improve farmer livelihoods, and how researchers and social movements can work together to advocate for better policies. As both an ENVS and PSS professor, I am really looking forward to building stronger partnerships between our growing agroecology initiatives and the Environmental Program’s students, faculty and staff.  


The first cohort of ALC Undergraduate Research Fellows at a farmer partner dinner held in 2018, at Jericho Settlers Farm. From left to right Karen Nordstrom (ENVS Advisor), Nell Carpenter (ENVS ALC Fellow), Allie Pankoff (ENSC ALC Fellow), Lizzy Holiman (Food Systems & Eco-Ag ALC Fellow), Emily McCarthy (ENVS ALC Fellow), Elise Schumacher (Food systems and ALC Fellow) and Ernesto Méndez (ALC/PSS and ENVS).

Picture of a shaded coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico, owned by a member of the CESMACH cooperative, showing a diversity of land uses and agricultural activities. The ALC has an ongoing project on diversification in Mexico and Nicaragua.

Greetings from AAG 2019!

Greetings from the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting!

UVM Plant and Soil Science PhD Students Alissa White and Janica Anderzén from the Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative presented their work yesterday at the special sessions on agroecology organized by CAWR (Center for Agroecology, Water & Resilience) and ARC (Agroecology Research-Action Collective). The meeting featured emerging research on agroecological transitions and theories of change under the title “Agroecology Now!”. Janica and Alissa presented during the first set of presentations focused on context-specific examples of agroecology initiatives and networks. The rest of the sessions drew in speakers that offered complementary research on opportunities and challenges for making changes at multiple scales in the food system.

Janica Anderzén shared results from early phases of her research with the CESMACH coffee coop in Chiapas, Mexico. Janica’s research offers new insight into diversification as a livelihood strategy for dealing with the climate and market pressures that contribute to food scarcity in this region.  She highlighted the role of beekeeping and subsistence farming to improved livelihood and food security.

Alissa White presented findings from her research with farmer networks in the Northeastern US.  Her analysis identifies networks as key drivers of farmer-led innovation in the region.  Based on emerging themes from focus groups, her research also explores the characteristics of networks that support the capacity of farmers to make change in the face of climate change.

Spotlight on Arbor Farmstead & Alisha Utter

ALC lab member Alisha Utter was recently featured in the UVM Women’s Agriculture Network series discussing how she uses diversification and agroecology to manage risks on her farm in Grand Isle, Arbor Farmstead. Additionally, Alisha draws upon veganic practices, which excludes the application of animal inputs. If you would like to learn more about the principles of veganic growing, as part of Public Philosophy Week, Alisha is leading a discussion on veganic farming this Friday (3/29) from 5-6 pm at Knead Bakery in Burlington. All are welcome to join the conversation!

ALC Undergraduate Fellows Host First “Womxn in Soil Science” Panel

ALC Undergraduate Fellows Host First “Womxn in Soil Science” Panel
ALC Undergraduate Fellows, Allie Pankoff ‘19, Elise Schumacher ‘19, and Alanna McLaughlin ‘ 20 recently put together a Womxn in Soil Science panel inspired by a #SoilScienceSocietyofAmerica presentation on the state of Gender Parity in Soil Science.
Allie on the panel:
Our motivation for the Womxn in Soil Science panel was to build community across the University by creating space for more experienced womxn soil scientists to share their experiences in the field. The event was initially inspired by The State of Gender Parity in Soil Science, a poster presented at the 2017 Soil Science of America conference, which highlights some eye-opening statistics on gender in the soil science fields. Our discussion centered on the experiences of womxn pursing professions in science; our panelists touched on persevering in the face of obstacles, the value of mentorship, and networking strategies.
Over 20 people attended our first panel, indicating the need for these types of events and a stronger sense of community among womxn scientists at UVM. Attendees expressed excitement at the opportunity to learn about the lives of womxn in academia today, and were reassured that not all career paths are linear in nature. Looking into the future, there is a lot of room for growth! We hope to continue what we started, and to have more events that are geared towards other underrepresented identities in the sciences.